The Scrabble Zone

The 2017 Great American Escape

SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS

It is difficult to adequately explain the intensity of a five-day Scrabble tournament to one who has never experienced it.  Yes, it is a grind to play seven or eight games per day for days in a row.  And you can’t help but notice the yawns and drooping expressions on the faces of the competitors when the last round of the day is underway and it’s close to 6 p.m.  But we always come back for more, spending thousands of dollars and our precious annual vacation time to fly and drive around the country to do it again.  As one of my opponents here at Word Cup 7 explains, “it’s like heroin to the vein.”

Merry Scrabble addicts all are we, counting the days until the next tournament, eagerly anticipating the next fix.

Scrabble truly is an all-ages game, as is borne out by the wide range of players here.  Over the last few days, for example, I have been soundly trounced by a boy who is on his summer vacation after having finished seventh grade, as well as by a very old lady who has to be close to age 90.  The boy, who has won prize after prize here, tells me that he practices with his mom’s boyfriend.  Then he kills me by over 150 points.  The old lady tells me that winning or losing doesn’t much matter to her and that she’s just glad to still be here and able to play.  Then she puts her word prowess on display and proceeds to beat me to pieces.

And we come from all over.  The tournament director drove here from Iowa, while the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is well represented by a contingent that traveled from Minnesota.  There are players here from Arizona and Florida and Oregon.  I am one of five Californians who made it out to New England for this event.

The local newspaper and TV station show up with cameras to shoot video and stills and interview some of the players.  The mayor sends a representative with a proclamation.  It is a big deal locally.

Many of my fellow Scrabblers have never been to Springfield before, but to me it is something of a homecoming.  I lived here for three years while attending law school back in the 1980s.  I am pleased to discover that a few of the eateries that I so enjoyed back then are still around and thriving decades later, serving new generations of students.

In many respects, however, it makes no difference what city we’re in when we are caught up in the excitement of the game.  When we shake hands and shake our tile bags, announce our scores and hit our clocks, it’s as if we’re lost in another world.

“Hey, did you hear that Trump fired Scaramucci after eleven days?” one of my fellow players announces between games.  Indeed, I had not.  Accustomed as I am to reading three or four newspapers online each day, I suspend my usual habits when attending a Scrabble tournament.  For here, under the crystal chandeliers in the grand ballroom of a big hotel, the world goes away for a while.  All that matters is finding that next big play for 90 points, chasing after the elusive triple-triple and notching up another win on our tally sheets.

We have entered the Scrabble zone.

 

48 States

Michigan

The 2017 Great American Escape

STURGIS, MICHIGAN

The Indiana Tollway, representing the joinder of Interstate Routes 80 and 90 from Chicago east into Ohio, runs along the most northern edge of the Hoosier State.  Last night, we stopped late in South Bend, famous as the home of football powerhouse Notre Dame University.  This is not my first time in Indiana; once, years ago, I stayed the night in Indianapolis on an unhappy cross-country trek with my parents, from Boston to California.  I admit to having only a vague concept of the state, a mishmash of images from TV — the Indy 500 auto race, brutal maximum security prisons, discrimination against gays under Vice President Mike Pence (in his days as state governor) and cornball family values à la “The Middle.”

But Michigan somehow feels different.  Despite the media’s images of Detroit’s blight and violence, of former auto plants, now boarded up and decamped to Mexico, my thoughts drift to the Holland tulip festival, to the hallowed halls of Ann Arbor, and to the Mackinac Bridge and the Upper Peninsula.  With Lake Michigan on the west and Lake Huron on the east, I think of sailboats, seagulls and saltwater taffy.

All of this is foolishness, I know, for Michigan is likely no better or worse than Indiana, its esteemed neighbor to the south.  By pure happenstance, however, Michigan will always occupy a special place in my heart as the final piece of my puzzle.  For Michigan was, until Monday, the last of the 48 continental United States that I had yet to visit.

I explained to my wife that the Indiana Toll Road flirts with the Michigan border without ever inching over into the Wolverine State.  To pull this off would require a bit of strategic planning.  We could head north from South Bend into the Niles, Michigan area, but the map seemed to indicate that finding our way back to the interstate might involve some complicated road wrangling.  On the other hand, we could proceed about 50 more miles along our trek east and exit the interstate just the tiniest blip south of Sturgis, Michigan.  I even found a pizza parlor with a website that promised a decent lunch in Sturgis.

The exit we’re looking for, I told my wife as we entered the freeway and collected a toll ticket, was Star Mills/Sturgis.  If we got off in Star Mills IN, we’d be less than five miles from Sturgis MI.  My face fell as I examined the list of exits on the toll ticket.  No Star Mills.  No Sturgis.  What now?

I harbored the unreasonable hope that perhaps some minor exits went unlisted on the toll ticket.  Then again, I reminded myself, some exits may be closed as several were in the Gary/Hammond area near Chicago.  A more likely theory, I realized, is that what looked on the map like an exit to State Road 9 was actually not an interchange, but a mere overpass or underpass.  Visions of returning to California with only 47 states under my belt danced through my head.  ABM would be my new self-deprecatory joke.  All But Michigan.

As we approached a town named Howe, I knew we were getting close to where I wanted to be.  Could the Howe exit get us there?  And Howe?  (Greet adversity with horrible puns, I always say.)  The sign does say Highway 9.  That looks promising.  And then, just before the off ramp, a small sign appeared, “Sturgis.”  (No mention of Michigan, as if the Indiana authorities wouldn’t dare utter another state’s name.  Foreigners!)

My wife was driving, and I all but yelled “Here! This one! Get off here!”  We paid the toll, headed north on Route 9 and were greeted about a minute later with the sign pictured above.  A few minutes later, we were enjoying lunch at Mancino’s on Centerville Boulevard in Sturgis, state of Michigan.

Now that I’ve visited each of the 48 contiguous states, what’s next?  Well, there’s only one thing left to do.  Onward to Alaska and Hawaii!

 

 

 

Midwest Impressions

The 2017 Great American Escape

CHIPPEWA FALLS, WISCONSIN

As a longtime Californian, a few things stand out among my impressions of the Great Plains and Midwest:

Open space.  Driving north on U.S. 85 from Spearfish, South Dakota to Belfield, North Dakota, we saw hayfields on either side of the road, and little else.  Waving grasses across the flat land, broken occasionally by a little rise, followed by more long views.  In California, hay is generally bundled into large rectangular bales, but here it is rolled up in what looks like giant jelly rolls, some sealed in plastic.  The few tiny towns we encountered consisted of a church, a school, a bar, perhaps a convenience store or tractor parts shop, and a few houses.  And cows, lots of cattle.  My wife says it’s like Little House on the Prairie, while visions of Ole Rølvaag’s character Per Hansa come to my mind.

Green.  It feels as if we’ve fled the burning of California.  Ten days ago, we made a quick trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles and back for work.  Down on Thursday, home on Friday. We drove south on Interstate 5, only to find ourselves stopped on the Grapevine, just short of Santa Clarita, as firefighters battled a blaze not far from the road.  Following this delay, we vowed to return by another route.  Heading north on Highway 101, we encountered more fires, marked by huge plumes of smoke that could be seen for miles.  Meanwhile, back in our own neck of the woods, half of Butte County was evacuated as a result of the Wall Fire.  The hot summer has left California an amalgam of grasses burned brown by the sun and earth scorched black by flames.  But here in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the lush greenness feels like another world.  The millions of evergreens of the Black Hills gave way to the Dakota grasslands.  Finally, the deep green of the leafy trees lining both sides of the local roads here in the upper Midwest soothe my soul and remind me of my childhood in the East.

Casinos.  I had no idea of the extent to which gambling has taken hold in Montana and the Dakotas.  Just about every town has a few video slots at the local gas station/convenience store.  And, no, I refuse to dilute its image by calling it “gaming,” as all the roadside signs do.  Is that, like, hunting big game?  Or video games like Xbox and Atari?  I know!  I’m headed across the country to Springfield, Massachusetts to participate in six days of gaming.  Scrabble is a game, right?

Osseo Pokey

Nickel pokey at a truck stop in Osseo, Wisconsin

Friendliness.  I am impressed by how nice everyone is.  Nearly everyone we have encountered has treated us as valued guests, from waitresses to hotel desk clerks to store personnel. It seems everyone wants to know where we’re from, where we’re going and what route we’re taking to get there.  As a native New Yorker who now calls California home, this is not something I’m used to.  It is heartening that the brusque  “Whaddya want?” attitude, so pervasive on the coasts, has not seeped into the American heartland.  This gives me hope for humanity.

 

 

 

Mount Rushmore, Part 1

Keystone SD

Downtown Keystone SD

The 2017 Great American Escape

KEYSTONE, SOUTH DAKOTA

U.S. 16, the road from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore, is studded with tourist kitsch of every ilk and description.  Reptile Gardens.  The Dinosaur Museum.  Bear Country USA.  A wax museum.  Miniature golf.  You can just hear the kids in the cars yelling “Mom! Dad! Pleeeeeease??”

But that’s nothing compared to the raucous assortment of rock shops, souvenir emporia, tchotchke mongers and cafés lining the main  drag in Keystone, two miles from the famous faces carved in stone.  As a result of the association of Theodore Roosevelt with the monument, it seemed that about half the commercial establishments contain “Teddy’s” somewhere in their names.

We picked out a likely looking café for dinner; the food was quite good, but the accommodations lacking.  Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the middle school sensibility of the rest room signs that read “Pointers” and “Squatters.”  So call me dense and clueless.  Guilty as charged.

We had three choices of seating:  Perched on high tops on the main floor, up a steep flight of stairs to normal tables, or outdoors.  As we are no longer able to comfortably climb either stairs or chairs, we ended up eating out on the patio.  With the sun beating down on us.  In 95 degree heat.  With flies landing on our food every two minutes.  Psssstt!  Ever heard of a little thing called the ADA?  It’s a really lovely law that we have in our country to protect those of us with disabilities, and I believe South Dakota is still part of the Union.  Well, last time I checked, anyway.  Um, should I have brought my passport?

My wife has about had it with my griping, and I can’t say I blame her a bit.  My generally poor attitude has been exacerbated by my own stupidity in bringing along only one pair of shoes, a pair that, as luck would have it, offer no support whatsoever and are painful to walk in for even the shortest distance.

Happily, my sour disposition took an about face as we drove up the mountain, rounded a curve… and suddenly, somehow unexpectedly, there it was in all its glory, Mount Rushmore and its famous presidential faces.  We came upon it all at once, unprepared even, and joined two other cars in pulling off the road to gawk, mouths hanging agape in awe and amazement.  The only experience I can compare this to is stepping out of Paris’ Trocadéro métro station to find the Eiffel Tower right in front of me.

Let’s just say that no photo of Mount Rushmore you have ever seen can begin to compare to the view in person.  I now understand why people from every corner of the earth have this site on their bucket lists.

As the sun was rapidly setting and we had done a long day’s drive to get here, we will return to the monument in the morning to visit it properly.

More to follow.

 

 

Talkin”Bout My Generation

Big Sky

Montana:  Big sky, open highway

The 2017 Great American Escape

BILLINGS, MONTANA

I have long had an eclectic appreciation of popular music.  During my childhood, my father introduced me to big band music and show tunes; later, I got into ’50s doo-wop and then country music and finally the hits of the ’70s and ’80s.  I pretty much lost track of pop music around 1990.

This can mean only one thing:  I’m getting old.  The music on my iPhone largely represents the days of my youth.  And I guess I’m not alone.  A lot of us Baby Boomers are starting to sport silver hair, serve as fodder for AARP and create commercial opportunities for all things retro.

To verify that my musical tastes are in line with the masses of my generation, I need only to visit a store or restaurant and pay attention to the background music piped in through the speakers.  Last night, for example, as we perched on stools at a casino bar in rural Nevada and stabbed at the video poker machines, I couldn’t help but notice that the house music was the Sirius XM channel 80s on 8.  As I sipped my soda, I realized that nearly every song I heard is on my phone.  Cyndi Lauper?  Check.  Madonna?  Check.  Michael Jackson?  Check.  Bananarama?  Check. Men at Work?  Bon Jovi?  Prince?  Check, check, check.  I guess my age group is supposed to have money and has thus become the target audience to woo.

This morning, we stopped for breakfast in Twin Falls, Idaho.  As we checked out the menu, we heard “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” followed by the Honeydrippers’ version of “Sea of Love.”

I rest my case.

 

Only in Nevada

The 2017 Great American Escape

 JACKPOT, NEVADA

Many a long year has gone by since I’ve been sent to bed without my supper.  But here, in the northernmost reaches of the Silver State, hard by the Idaho border, I somehow managed to pull it off.

It is an axiom of business (and of life) that everything takes longer than you think it will.  Driving 537 miles on our first day out proved to be no exception to this rule.  We couldn’t leave from home by dawn’s early light, as first I had to work half a day.  Then a projected 8-hour drive to our first stop took closer to 9½ hours, despite the 75 and 80 mile per hour speed limits on Interstate 80 through the vast, barren Nevada desert.  By the time we arrived at our hotel, its  restaurant had closed up shop for the evening.  I suppose we were lucky that they didn’t give our reservation away.

At check-in, the desk clerk assured us that all the other casinos along U.S. 93 had 24-hour restaurants.  Exhausted, we trudged to our room with our clothes and laptops.  Then came the conundrum:  Sleep or eat?  Eat, we decided.  I was concerned that my wife’s blood sugar would drop too low overnight if she didn’t get some food in her.

Heading back out down the strip, we first came to the Horseshu Casino, which appeared to be out of business.  After waiting at one of the longest red lights I have ever experienced, we crossed the road to Cactus Pete’s.  Inside the lobby, we passed the closed seafood and steak house.  We asked directions and were told that the 24-hour restaurant, named “Nosh,” was located down by the second bar.  What we found was a tiny snack bar counter with tables off to the side.  We inquired as to where the restaurant was and were assured that this was it. “We’re considered a restaurant,” the woman behind the counter informed us.  Talk about using a word loosely.

Good luck finding anything meatless at Nosh.  The sandwiches, we were informed, were pre-made and already had meat on them.  We walked out.

Driving back to our hotel, we figured that if we couldn’t eat, at least we could gamble. The hotel had given us each coupons for $4 in free play.  Upon finding little of interest in the tiny casino, we sat at the bar and played nickel video poker for about half an hour.  We quickly used up the comps and put in some our own money.  My wife hit a string of full houses before coming up with four aces. My machine, by contrast, seemed to specialize in even money “jacks or better.”  All told, we came away down about $2.50.

On the way back to our room, my wife decided to buy a soda from a vending machine.  She was surprised that the price was only 75 cents. We soon discovered why.  Apparently, you can charge low prices and still make a profit if you don’t actually deliver the goods to the customer.  After losing a quarter in the Pepsi machine, she tried the Coke machine, where she lost the full 75 cents.  Luckily, we had brought some bottles of water with us.

Well, if you can’t eat around here after 10 pm and you don’t want to spend a lot of money gambling, surely there are other activities and attractions in the area.  We saw one such place just as we were heading out of Elko.  And it was open all night, too! “Donna’s Ranch,” the sign announced, “open 24 hours.”

Only in Nevada.